“Rudeness is just as bad as racism”: thus David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, when he was leader of the opposition in April 2007. It was a remark he should know better to make now: not because it is politically incorrect (usually a bad reason for doing, or not doing, anything) but because it’s crass.
Rudeness is being uncivil. Racism can be murderous.
But there is some excuse for the future Prime Minister’s confusion. The two are linked: the common denominator is respect. Racism is a radical lack of respect for an ethnicity which you have convinced yourself, or brought up, to despise. Rudeness is a milder lack of respect for others you meet in your journey through the day – or through life. Further link: one of the reasons why there’s less rudeness is that, in the past couple of decades, casual racism has largely disappeared from public discourse in most advanced societies — though some of that is because it has gone underground.
Less rudeness? Who says less? Don’t we all know that what’s the matter with kids today – and quite often, with their parents – is that they have no manners?
It doesn’t seem that clear cut. In the UK, where unmannerly behavior – the blast of stereos, the jostling of the elderly on public transport, the drunkenness and worse of young women in city centers on a Friday night – is a daily moan, a new report says it’s improving. It seems as counter intuitive as that other recent claim, by Steven Pinker of Harvard (in the 700-page The Better Angels of our Nature) that violence within and between societies has been falling for more than two millennia – and that we live in unprecedentedly peaceful times. Can we be living in unprecedentedly nice times?
Charm Offensive, from the Young Foundation earlier this month, argued something just as absurd to those who read only the headlines: yes, we are. That’s for a variety of reasons: one of these is that many people no longer express racism, and may no longer feel it: as one East End stallholder told the Young Foundation’s researchers – “we have to be polite because we’re so different”. This is an ideal: others less civilized than the stallholder see difference as an excuse to be rude. But it’s encouraging.